By Shawn Perich
Recently, I taught six adults how to fish without taking them fishing. The Basic Fishing class was held at the North House Folk School, which is located on the harbor in Grand Marais, so our casting practice area was just outside the classroom. The class was comprised of four men and two women, all over the age of 50. You might say all were seasoned, they just weren’t seasoned anglers.
We started the class with brief introductions. Everyone had a little fishing experience, but not enough to know what they were doing. I find this is pretty common among adults who develop an interest in the outdoors. Living in Minnesota, it’s hard not to have some exposure to outdoor activities, but it is hard for many folks to find a mentor who can teach them how to participate in them.
For instance, you can hire a guide to go fishing, but that doesn’t mean you’ll learn anything. The guide’s job is to help you catch fish, not to teach you how to do it. Since guides often have customers with minimal fishing skill, they use simple, but productive fishing methods. All a neophyte needs to do is hold on to the fishing rod and follow the guide’s instructions to have a good chance for success.
But there is more to fishing than catching fish. You need to know how to operate a rod and reel, how to tie knots and rig tackle, and how to use various baits and lures. Someone has to teach you these skills. Then you have to practice them. For the class, I rounded up spinning rods and reels and a selection of tackle for each student. My objective was to make sure they understood how to use everything by day’s end.
We started the day learning how to tie an Improved Clinch Knot, which is about the only knot you really need to know in order to go fishing. We practiced first on a length of rope; then we went tried it on six-pound monofilament line. I was surprised at how quickly everyone mastered the knot.
Next, we learned about the spinning rod and reel. I explained why a spinning rod is better to use for fishing than a push-button, spin-cast outfit. The students attached reels to rods. Then we wound line on the reels. This task proved more difficult than expected. Aging eyes had trouble seeing the thread-like monofilament. One fellow reeled the line on backwards. Everyone had line twists and tangles, which were up to me to untangle.
Once the reels had line, I gave everyone a casting plug made from a wine cork and an eye screw. Then I demonstrated how to open the reel’s bail, hold the line with your forefinger and make a cast. I offered the same advice I give budding fly casters: Focus on where you want your bait to go—then the act of casting comes naturally. Soon, everyone was down on the docks along the harbor, casting their wine corks upon the water.
After lunch, we learned about tackle. I assembled a basic selection of tackle that would not only consistently catch fish, but also teach the class how to use various baits and lures in different situations. We started with jigs. Next we learned about slip bobbers. Everyone took their bobber rigging down to the water to see how it worked. “Ok, now I get it,” was a common response. Using soft plastic minnows as substitutes for the real thing, I showed them a few ways to hook and rig live bait. One student said she could now bait her own hook—provided she was wearing gloves to do so.
We worked our way through Mepps spinners, Shad Raps and casting spoons. Not surprisingly, the spoon was a big hit because it was easy to cast. However, several students also remarked how they noticed the Shad Rap would dive to various depths depending on the speed of their retrieve. We talked about what lures would be best for various fish species and how some could be cast or trolled. For spinners, I showed them how to use a ball bearing swivel to prevent line twist. By then, everyone had already experienced line twist and understood why you want to avoid it.
The afternoon passed quickly. We finished the class by talking about fishing in the north country. Everyone received a copy of Duluth author Mike Furtman’s “A Boundary Waters Fishing Guide.” We talked about walleyes, stream trout northern pike, lake trout and smallmouth bass. I tried to give them just enough information about where and when to find the different fish without overwhelming and boring them with too much information. Even so, I could see my class, attentive all day, was beginning to glaze over.
I’d planned to include a couple of hours of actual fishing on a nearby lake, but a delayed ice-out nixed that portion of the class. Hindsight being 20-20, that time was better spent in the classroom. One student suggested that a second “on the water” class be offered for the “graduates” of basic fishing. Since everyone went home with a rod, reel and small, but well stocked tackle box, I’m pretty sure they will get out on their own. One couple planned to go fishing with their grandkids. The others had similar plans. Whether they head out on their own or go fishing with others, I’m confident they learned enough to mostly avoid frustration and embarrassment. With luck, they should be able to catch fish.
I like to think my fishing class will be a life-changing experience for the students. After all, when you give someone a fish, you feed them for a day. When you teach someone to fish, you feed them for life. Thanks to the generosity of Shimano, Northland Tackle, Outdoor News, Mepps and Michael Furtman, six more people now know how to feed themselves.